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An Overview of the Economic History of Uruguay since the 1870s

Luis Bértola, Universidad de la República — Uruguay

Uruguay’s Early History

Without silver or gold, without valuable species, scarcely peopled by gatherers and fishers, the Eastern Strand of the Uruguay River (Banda Oriental was the colonial name; República Oriental del Uruguay is the official name today) was, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, distant and unattractive to the European nations that conquered the region. The major export product was the leather of wild descendants of cattle introduced in the early 1600s by the Spaniards. As cattle preceded humans, the state preceded society: Uruguay’s first settlement was Colonia del Sacramento, a Portuguese military fortress founded in 1680, placed precisely across from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Montevideo, also a fortress, was founded by the Spaniards in 1724. Uruguay was on the border between the Spanish and Portuguese empires, a feature which would be decisive for the creation, with strong British involvement, in 1828-1830, of an independent state.

Montevideo had the best natural harbor in the region, and rapidly became the end-point of the trans-Atlantic routes into the region, the base for a strong commercial elite, and for the Spanish navy in the region. During the first decades after independence, however, Uruguay was plagued by political instability, precarious institution building and economic retardation. Recurrent civil wars with intensive involvement by Britain, France, Portugal-Brazil and Argentina, made Uruguay a center for international conflicts, the most important being the Great War (Guerra Grande), which lasted from 1839 to 1851. At its end Uruguay had only about 130,000 inhabitants.

“Around the middle of the nineteenth century, Uruguay was dominated by the latifundium, with its ill-defined boundaries and enormous herds of native cattle, from which only the hides were exported to Great Britain and part of the meat, as jerky, to Brazil and Cuba. There was a shifting rural population that worked on the large estates and lived largely on the parts of beef carcasses that could not be marketed abroad. Often the landowners were also the caudillos of the Blanco or Colorado political parties, the protagonists of civil wars that a weak government was unable to prevent” (Barrán and Nahum, 1984, 655). This picture still holds, even if it has been excessively stylized, neglecting the importance of subsistence or domestic-market oriented peasant production.

Economic Performance in the Long Run

Despite its precarious beginnings, Uruguay’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) growth from 1870 to 2002 shows an amazing persistence, with the long-run rate averaging around one percent per year. However, this apparent stability hides some important shifts. As shown in Figure 1, both GDP and population grew much faster before the 1930s; from 1930 to 1960 immigration vanished and population grew much more slowly, while decades of GDP stagnation and fast growth alternated; after the 1960s Uruguay became a net-emigration country, with low natural growth rates and a still spasmodic GDP growth.

GDP growth shows a pattern featured by Kuznets-like swings (Bértola and Lorenzo 2004), with extremely destructive downward phases, as shown in Table 1. This cyclical pattern is correlated with movements of the terms of trade (the relative price of exports versus imports), world demand and international capital flows. In the expansive phases exports performed well, due to increased demand and/or positive terms of trade shocks (1880s, 1900s, 1920s, 1940s and even during the Mercosur years from 1991 to 1998). Capital flows would sometimes follow these booms and prolong the cycle, or even be a decisive force to set the cycle up, as were financial flows in the 1970s and 1990s. The usual outcome, however, has been an overvalued currency, which blurred the debt problem and threatened the balance of trade by overpricing exports. Crises have been the result of a combination of changing trade conditions, devaluation and over-indebtedness, as in the 1880s, early 1910s, late 1920s, 1950s, early 1980s and late 1990s.

Population and per capita GDP of Uruguay, 1870-2002 (1913=100)

Table 1: Swings in the Uruguayan Economy, 1870-2003

Per capita GDP fall (%) Length of recession (years) Time to pre-crisis levels (years) Time to next crisis (years)
1872-1875 26 3 15 16
1888-1890 21 2 19 25
1912-1915 30 3 15 19
1930-1933 36 3 17 24-27
1954/57-59 9 2-5 18-21 27-24
1981-1984 17 3 11 17
1998-2003 21 5

Sources: See Figure 1.

Besides its cyclical movement, the terms of trade showed a sharp positive trend in 1870-1913, a strongly fluctuating pattern around similar levels in 1913-1960 and a deteriorating trend since then. While the volume of exports grew quickly up to the 1920s, it stagnated in 1930-1960 and started to grow again after 1970. As a result, the purchasing power of exports grew fourfold in 1870-1913, fluctuated along with the terms of trade in 1930-1960, and exhibited a moderate growth in 1970-2002.

The Uruguayan economy was very open to trade in the period up to 1913, featuring high export shares, which naturally declined as the rapidly growing population filled in rather empty areas. In 1930-1960 the economy was increasingly and markedly closed to international trade, but since the 1970s the economy opened up to trade again. Nevertheless, exports, which earlier were mainly directed to Europe (beef, wool, leather, linseed, etc.), were increasingly oriented to Argentina and Brazil, in the context of bilateral trade agreements in the 1970s and 1980s and of Mercosur (the trading zone encompassing Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) in the 1990s.

While industrial output kept pace with agrarian export-led growth during the first globalization boom before World War I, the industrial share in GDP increased in 1930-54, and was mainly domestic-market orientated. Deindustrialization has been profound since the mid-1980s. The service sector was always large: focusing on commerce, transport and traditional state bureaucracy during the first globalization boom; focusing on health care, education and social services, during the import-substituting industrialization (ISI) period in the middle of the twentieth century; and focusing on military expenditure, tourism and finance since the 1970s.

The income distribution changed markedly over time. During the first globalization boom before World War I, an already uneven distribution of income and wealth seems to have worsened, due to massive immigration and increasing demand for land, both rural and urban. However, by the 1920s the relative prices of land and labor changed their previous trend, reducing income inequality. The trend later favored industrialization policies, democratization, introduction of wage councils, and the expansion of the welfare state based on an egalitarian ideology. Inequality diminished in many respects: between sectors, within sectors, between genders and between workers and pensioners. While the military dictatorship and the liberal economic policy implemented since the 1970s initiated a drastic reversal of the trend toward economic equality, the globalizing movements of the 1980s and 1990s under democratic rule didn’t increase equality. Thus, inequality remains at the higher levels reached during the period of dictatorship (1973-85).

Comparative Long-run Performance

If the stable long-run rate of Uruguayan per capita GDP growth hides important internal transformations, Uruguay’s changing position in the international scene is even more remarkable. During the first globalization boom the world became more unequal: the United States forged ahead as the world leader (nearly followed by other settler economies); Asia and Africa lagged far behind. Latin America showed a confusing map, in which countries as Argentina and Uruguay performed rather well, and others, such as the Andean region, lagged far behind (Bértola and Williamson 2003). Uruguay’s strong initial position tended to deteriorate in relation to the successful core countries during the late 1800s, as shown in Figure 2. This trend of negative relative growth was somewhat weak during the first half of the twentieth century, improved significantly during the 1960s, as the import-substituting industrialization model got exhausted, and has continued since the 1970s, despite policies favoring increased integration into the global economy.

 Per capita GDP of Uruguay relative to four core countries,  1870-2002

If school enrollment and literacy rates are reasonable proxies for human capital, in late 1800s both Argentina and Uruguay had a great handicap in relation to the United States, as shown in Table 2. The gap in literacy rates tended to disappear — as well as this proxy’s ability to measure comparative levels of human capital. Nevertheless, school enrollment, which includes college-level and technical education, showed a catching-up trend until the 1960’s, but reverted afterwards.

The gap in life-expectancy at birth has always been much smaller than the other development indicators. Nevertheless, some trends are noticeable: the gap increased in 1900-1930; decreased in 1930-1950; and increased again after the 1970s.

Table 2: Uruguayan Performance in Comparative Perspective, 1870-2000 (US = 100)

1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000
GDP per capita


101 65 63 27 32 27 33 27 26 24 19 18 15 16


63 34 38 31 32 29 25 25 24 21 15 16


23 8 8 8 8 8 7 9 9 13 11 10
Latin America 13 12 13 10 9 9 9 6 6


100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100
Literacy rates


57 65 72 79 85 91 92 94 95 97 99


57 65 72 79 85 91 93 94 94 96 98


39 38 37 42 46 51 61 69 76 81 86

Latin America

28 30 34 37 42 47 56 65 71 77 83


100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100
School enrollment


23 31 31 30 34 42 52 46 43


28 41 42 36 39 43 55 44 45


12 11 12 14 18 22 30 42

Latin America


100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100
Life expectancy at birth


102 100 91 85 91 97 97 97 95 96 96


81 85 86 90 88 90 93 94 95 96 95
Brazil 60 60 56 58 58 63 79 83 85 88 88
Latin America 65 63 58 58 59 63 71 77 81 88 87
USA 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100

Sources: Per capita GDP: Maddison (2001) and Astorga, Bergés and FitzGerald (2003). Literacy rates and life expectancy; Astorga, Bergés and FitzGerald (2003). School enrollment; Bértola and Bertoni (1998).

Uruguay during the First Globalization Boom: Challenge and Response

During the post-Great-War reconstruction after 1851, Uruguayan population grew rapidly (fueled by high natural rates and immigration) and so did per capita output. Productivity grew due to several causes including: the steam ship revolution, which critically reduced the price spread between Europe and America and eased access to the European market; railways, which contributed to the unification of domestic markets and reduced domestic transport costs; the diffusion and adaptation to domestic conditions of innovations in cattle-breeding and services; a significant reduction in transaction costs, related to a fluctuating but noticeable process of institutional building and strengthening of the coercive power of the state.

Wool and woolen products, hides and leather were exported mainly to Europe; salted beef (tasajo) to Brazil and Cuba. Livestock-breeding (both cattle and sheep) was intensive in natural resources and dominated by large estates. By the 1880s, the agrarian frontier was exhausted, land properties were fenced and property rights strengthened. Labor became abundant and concentrated in urban areas, especially around Montevideo’s harbor, which played an important role as a regional (supranational) commercial center. By 1908, it contained 40 percent of the nation’s population, which had risen to more than a million inhabitants, and provided the main part of Uruguay’s services, civil servants and the weak and handicraft-dominated manufacturing sector.

By the 1910s, Uruguayan competitiveness started to weaken. As the benefits of the old technological paradigm were eroding, the new one was not particularly beneficial for resource-intensive countries such as Uruguay. International demand shifted away from primary consumption, the population of Europe grew slowly and European countries struggled for self-sufficiency in primary production in a context of soaring world supply. Beginning in the 1920s, the cattle-breeding sector showed a very poor performance, due to lack of innovation away from natural pastures. In the 1930’s, its performance deteriorated mainly due to unfavorable international conditions. Export volumes stagnated until the 1970s, while purchasing power fluctuated strongly following the terms of trade.

Inward-looking Growth and Structural Change

The Uruguayan economy grew inwards until the 1950s. The multiple exchange rate system was the main economic policy tool. Agrarian production was re-oriented towards wool, crops, dairy products and other industrial inputs, away from beef. The manufacturing industry grew rapidly and diversified significantly, with the help of protectionist tariffs. It was light, and lacked capital goods or technology-intensive sectors. Productivity growth hinged upon technology transfers embodied in imported capital goods and an intensive domestic adaptation process of mature technologies. Domestic demand grew also through an expanding public sector and the expansion of a corporate welfare state. The terms of trade substantially impacted protectionism, productivity growth and domestic demand — the government raised money by manipulating exchange rates, so that when export prices rose the state had a greater capacity to protect the manufacturing sector through low exchange rates for capital goods, raw material and fuel imports and to spur productivity increases by imports of capital, while protection allowed industry to pay higher wages and thus expand domestic demand.

However, rent-seeking industries searching for protectionism and a weak clienteslist state, crowded by civil servants recruited in exchange for political favors to the political parties, directed structural change towards a closed economy and inefficient management. The obvious limits to inward looking growth of a country peopled by only about two million inhabitants were exacerbated in the late 1950s as terms of trade deteriorated. The clientelist political system, which was created by both traditional parties while the state was expanding at the national and local level, was now not able to absorb the increasing social conflicts, dyed by stringent ideological confrontation, in a context of stagnation and huge fiscal deficits.

Re-globalization and Regional Integration

The dictatorship (1973-1985) started a period of increasing openness to trade and deregulation which has persisted until the present. Dynamic integration into the world market is still incomplete, however. An attempt to return to cattle-breeding exports, as the engine of growth, was hindered by the oil crises and the ensuing European response, which restricted meat exports to that destination. The export sector was re-orientated towards “non-traditional exports” — i.e., exports of industrial goods made of traditional raw materials, to which low-quality and low-wage labor was added. Exports were also stimulated by means of strong fiscal exemptions and negative real interest rates and were re-orientated to the regional market (Argentina and Brazil) and to other developing regions. At the end of the 1970s, this policy was replaced by the monetarist approach to the balance of payments. The main goal was to defeat inflation (which had continued above 50% since the 1960s) through deregulation of foreign trade and a pre-announced exchange rate, the “tablita.” A strong wave of capital inflows led to a transitory success, but the Uruguayan peso became more and more overvalued, thus limiting exports, encouraging imports and deepening the chronic balance of trade deficit. The “tablita” remained dependent on increasing capital inflows and obviously collapsed when the risk of a huge devaluation became real. Recession and the debt crisis dominated the scene of the early 1980s.

Democratic regimes since 1985 have combined natural resource intensive exports to the region and other emergent markets, with a modest intra-industrial trade mainly with Argentina. In the 1990s, once again, Uruguay was overexposed to financial capital inflows which fueled a rather volatile growth period. However, by the year 2000, Uruguay had a much worse position in relation to the leaders of the world economy as measured by per capita GDP, real wages, equity and education coverage, than it had fifty years earlier.

Medium-run Prospects

In the 1990s Mercosur as a whole and each of its member countries exhibited a strong trade deficit with non-Mercosur countries. This was the result of a growth pattern fueled by and highly dependent on foreign capital inflows, combined with the traditional specialization in commodities. The whole Mercosur project is still mainly oriented toward price competitiveness. Nevertheless, the strongly divergent macroeconomic policies within Mercosur during the deep Argentine and Uruguayan crisis of the beginning of the twenty-first century, seem to have given place to increased coordination between Argentina and Brazil, thus making of the region a more stable environment.

The big question is whether the ongoing political revival of Mercosur will be able to achieve convergent macroeconomic policies, success in international trade negotiations, and, above all, achievements in developing productive networks which may allow Mercosur to compete outside its home market with knowledge-intensive goods and services. Over that hangs Uruguay’s chance to break away from its long-run divergent siesta.


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Bértola, Luis. The Manufacturing Industry of Uruguay, 1913-1961: A Sectoral Approach to Growth, Fluctuations and Crisis. Publications of the Department of Economic History, University of Göteborg, 61; Institute of Latin American Studies of Stockholm University, Monograph No. 20, 1990.

Bértola, Luis and Reto Bertoni. “Educación y aprendizaje en escenarios de convergencia y divergencia.” Documento de Trabajo, no. 46, Unidad Multidisciplinaria, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de la República, 1998.

Bértola, Luis and Fernando Lorenzo. “Witches in the South: Kuznets-like Swings in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay since the 1870s.” In The Experience of Economic Growth, edited by J.L. van Zanden and S. Heikenen. Amsterdam: Aksant, 2004.

Bértola, Luis and Gabriel Porcile. “Argentina, Brasil, Uruguay y la Economía Mundial: una aproximación a diferentes regímenes de convergencia y divergencia.” In Ensayos de Historia Económica by Luis Bertola. Montevideo: Uruguay en la región y el mundo, 2000.

Bértola, Luis and Jeffrey Williamson. “Globalization in Latin America before 1940.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper, no. 9687 (2003).

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Citation: Bertola, Luis. “An Overview of the Economic History of Uruguay since the 1870s”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL